Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Most Precious Gifts

Isaiah 60:1-9
 Matthew 2:1-12         

               I thought we’d start this morning with a little biblical quiz.  First of all, in what book or books of the Bible do we find the story of the three kings?
               None.  There are no kings mentioned and there is no number mentioned.  Instead we are told “some wisemen” or magi from the east came to Jerusalem searching for the king of the Jews. 
               What, then, are magi?  Are they kings?  No.  Astrologers.
               About how old was Jesus when they came to see him?  Between 41 days and 2 years.
               Why did they bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh?  What were these things and why were they important in this recounting?  Frankincense is often used as incense or in an anointing oil that was often used in the temple for religious reasons.  Myrrh is similar and can also be used as an oil or incense, but mostly was used to embalm the dead.  These things were incredibly valuable, monetarily, but they were also symbols of what was to come.  Symbols of a recognition of Jesus’ holiness, but also, his death.  Both are purifiers, and readiers for death, for sacraments, for religious tasks, all of which would be Jesus’ life.   The magi travelled far, took time away from families, occupation, home, significant time.  While some say it would have taken only a month of travel (one direction), others estimate that it was a year or more out of their lives that this entailed.
               They gave most precious gifts, gifts that required all of who they were – their resources, their time, their commitments, all to come and see this baby and to bring this baby their gifts.
               What are we this committed to?  What do we care about enough that we would leave home, leave FAMILY, sell all we have to spend on a gift for someone whom we’ve never met before and may never see again? 
               I think about the pilgrims and what they gave up to start a new life here in the United States.  Many of them gave their lives, dying in the travel, with the hopes for something better.  Many gave up family, leaving them behind or knowing that they risked some not making the journey successfully.  The same remains true of many of our immigrants today.  Many of those who come here as refugees or as people escaping their countries of origin are truly risking everything they have and everything they are to try to find a better life, usually for their kids.  They make this commitment, this journey, all to begin again, to start something new.  I think about this, how they gave these most precious gifts of starting in a new place, travelling, their resources, to create a new life, new possibilities, for their children, their children’s children, their family.  But these magi, they gave these most precious gifts for the hope of a new tomorrow for Israel.  They gave these most precious gifts for strangers in a strange country, in a strange world.  For a future they would never see.  For a time they would not and could not be a part of. 
               Can you imagine that?
               God loves us in this way, giving up everything to give us the most precious gifts, of life, of Jesus, of salvation.  As Bonhoeffer said it, "God does not love some ideal person, but rather human beings just as we are, not some ideal world, but rather the real world."
               But…
God also calls us to love in return in the same way.  Of course we aren’t always going to succeed in doing that.  And sometimes it won’t look like giving up everything to follow God.  But the willingness and faith to give all we have to further God’s reign, God’s place, God’s LOVE here on earth, that is our call. 
But still, this is good news.  Because what we will find is that, as Mitch Albom put it, “as is often the case with faith, I thought I was being asked a favor, when in fact I was being given one.”  God asks us to be willing to give everything for God.  But what we will find is that when we do this, our lives are deepened, enriched, made whole in a way we cannot begin to anticipate.

In the wonderful mystery story, Aunt Dimity’s Christmas, the main character, Lori, found a stranger, a dirty, disheveled stranger, passed out in her driveway.  She got him help, reluctantly, but she did it, then proceeded, with the help of a priest to provide care for him, to get him the medical help he needed but also to search out who he was and what his story was.  She helped him to get back on his feet, to remember who he was, to come into his own again.  She didn’t want to do it, but she found that when she did, the gifts that came back to her far exceeded what she had given to him.  She said, “He forced me to look at things I didn’t want to see, and remember things I wanted to forget.  If Kit hadn’t come to the cottage I wouldn’t have gone to St. Benedict’s (which included the homeless shelter).  And if I hadn’t gone to St Benedicts, I wouldn’t have realized how much I have in common with the homeless men there. …I fought it tooth and nail….I’d gotten too fat and sassy...  I’d paid my dues, so I thought I was entitled to my blessings.  Kit reminded me that blessings aren’t a right – they’re a gift.  I’m no more entitled to them than the homeless men, and I’m ashamed of myself for not remembering it sooner. “  Her choosing to help this stranger led her to gifts that were uncomfortable at first, but which deepened and strengthened her and made her more whole.

I’m reminded also of the children’s Christmas Story, “The Littlest angel.” He was a little boy who didn’t fit in with the other angels because he was a child, a young child, who found heaven “boring” or at least certainly not a good place for this young boy.  The understanding angel asked him what would help and the boy said a box that was under his bed.  The box was rough and had little boy things in it – rocks, dirt, a broken bird egg, a dead butterfly, an old dog collar.  But it was the treasure of the littlest angel. These things that the rest of us would find inconsequential, dirty, messy, broken – these were treasures for a little boy.  And so when Jesus was born, and all the angels brought presents for the Christ child, the littlest angel thought that since Jesus would be born a young boy, he would enjoy the same things as this littlest angel.  He brought to God his shabby, dirty box as an offering to Jesus.  He brought to God the things he treasured most to give to another little boy.  But as soon as he put this dirty, messy box of broken and old things in with the other gifts, he had the sudden and shocking realization that his gift was wrong.  That it was nothing, that it was “horrible” in comparison with theirs.  In shame he tried to run away from the pile of gifts, run away from God, run away from the other angels.  But as he tried to run away, God, in great wisdom, chose his gift to become the star of Bethlehem.  Because it is the gifts from the heart, the gifts that give all of what WE value, that are the brightest lights that all can see. 
As we know, real life isn’t always so obvious.  The gifts we bring, the services we offer, the sacrifices we make aren’t always so obviously, or so quickly turned into beauty.  Sometimes the results of our gifts take months, years, generations for the results. Sometimes we will never see the outcome of the gifts we bring. None the less, we are called to follow the opportunities to serve and give that God has blessed us with, with the hope, faith and trust that God takes whatever we offer in love, and makes it beautiful. 
My good friend, Tyler, sent me this email several lents ago: “My wife, Sue Ann asked if I'd play something on my guitar as a solo for Easter for her new church.  My first reaction was "I dunno, Easter is pretty 'up', and all my chord solo stuff has been pretty introspective." I said this out loud, and she expressed some disappointment.  But I kept going over my repertoire in my mind, and flipped through some of the music I’d played before. That weekend, we attended a memorial service for a woman who loved to walk, and loved nature. Among the songs they played at the service was How Great Thou Art.  Something about that song just lit up on the page.  I started working on it, to see how I could re-harmonize it for guitar.  It wasn't until I'd spent some considerable time on it, that I read the lyrics, especially the first and second verses.  I've always related my theology to nature, and music, and how well that fit!  So I spend a little time every morning with the tune.  I seem to find something different in it, some riff, some chord progression that took me where I want to go in the song.  It hit me this morning that I'd actually been DOING a Lenten practice.  But instead of my choosing it, it had chosen ME.  "What are you giving up for Lent?" people say.  I usually mumble and change the subject.  But it seems all my best spiritual practices are simply given to me.  Like the first time I was asked to play a solo at Bethel.  I wanted to just say NO, but instead my mouth said "maybe".  I don't even recognize the offerings that are given to me at the time. I might not be changing the world, saving babies or the environment with what I've been tasked to do, but I've learned to not say "No" when God asks me. I don't know what How Great Thou Art will sound like on Easter Morning, but that's only partly in my hands.”

God asks us to give and gives opportunities for us to give all the time.  They are all around us, opportunities to serve God with our time, our energy, our resources, and especially with our love.  When we give, the rewards of that giving won’t always be clear or obvious at first.  Sometimes we will never see what we have gained in our caring and serving and giving to others.  But we know that serving God is reward in itself.  And God’s love for us, for humanity, for the world, will take whatever we give and make it huge and beautiful.  Like the star in the Littlest Angel, our gifts of service, resources, and love become bright stars for those with eyes to see can experience. 

               Today we passed out stars.  Each of these has a word on it with the name of a gift or “virtue”.  These are gifts for you to reflect on for the next year, to focus your thoughts, prayers and attention for the year.  Next year on Epiphany Sunday I will ask you to share stories about how those words or stars might have touched you this last year.  They are upside down in the baskets and I ask you to pick one without looking at it first.  These aren’t “magical”, but I do think that there can be a gift in focusing on one of the many blessings God has given to each of us for a set amount of time.  I look forward to hearing how your lights will show and touch the world this year, how you will have been touched by God’s light this year.  Amen.